Book Review

The Rise and Fall of “Scientific Democracy”

sciencea review by Ethan Schrum

Science, Democracy, and the American University
by Andrew Jewett
413 pages. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

In Science, Democracy, and the American University: From the Civil War to the Cold War, Andrew Jewett has written an unusual and provocative work of American intellectual history. It is unusual, especially for a first book, because of its length (402 pages) and extraordinary scope. Indeed, it has many features of a synthesis, particularly that much of its work is reinterpretation from secondary sources rather than presenting new material from archives. It is provocative because it addresses so many central issues in American intellectual history and often suggests new ways of understanding them. It is also a pleasure to read because the prose flows so well and the organization is outstanding.

Jewett’s aim is to recover and rehabilitate both a mode of thinking, which he calls “scientific democracy,” and its practitioners, who he dubs “scientific democrats.” John Dewey, whose likeness dominates the dust jacket, was the central figure in this movement. Jewett argues that scientific democracy arose in the late nineteenth century and “strongly conditioned the rise of the scientific disciplines and the modern research universities” (3), where it became institutionalized. It then flourished in the early twentieth century. Jewett describes several varieties of scientific democracy, but their shared core was the belief that science could provide ethical foundations for democracy by shaping citizens’ “moral character, normative commitments, and discursive practices.” Science thus “promised thoroughgoing cultural change” and “even a comprehensive way of life.” (10) It “found its highest purpose in changing the normative commitments of the American people.” (8)

Despite this flourishing of scientific democracy, Jewett believes, the international crises of the 1930s precipitated its decline, which accelerated in the 1940s and was complete by the early 1960s. “The immense and practically unchallengeable national projects” of Depression, World War, and Cold War “gradually integrated science into the state apparatus and blunted the critical edge of scientific democracy.” (16) In this process, disciplines and universities banished “engagement with public discourse and normative questions” from the human sciences in favor of purely technical, instrumental research. In other words, Jewett believes that the human sciences ceased to advocate for scientific democracy after World War II. Instead, they “claim[ed] to offer only technical means to externally determined ends.” (4) These “value-neutral conceptions of science” had a “growing entanglement with a managerial form of liberalism.” (225) Jewett bemoans this depiction of science as merely instrumental rationality, and hopes that his book will inspire a revival of science’s ethical and political possibilities.

One of this book’s excellent contributions is that it describes the rise of a peculiar concept of values that made the very notion of “value-neutral” science possible. This conceptual innovation is one of the most important in twentieth-century American intellectual history, yet it is rarely discussed. Others would do well to follow Jewett’s lead. In Chapter 9, “The Problem of Values,” he shows how philosophers developed this concept from 1909 forward. Only in the mid-1930s did academics begin to discuss value-neutral science. He attributes this timing largely to the federal government’s “unprecedented uses of social science” (274) in the New Deal, and argues that the ideological contests of the 1930s encouraged New Deal experts “to portray themselves as technicians implementing the public will rather than ethical guides on the path to a cooperative future.” (272)

Jewett also reinterprets consensus liberalism as he tells this story of scientific democracy’s decline. He portrays consensus liberalism, which he claims emerged by 1939, as a rearguard action by scientific democrats under pressure from the new definition of science. It provided them with a way to remain scientific and still give citizens ethical guidance—to retain “public relevance and cultural authority.” It did so by asserting that all Americans had a shared core of liberal values since the country’s founding. Its advocates could thus argue that “the interpersonal sphere was already steeped in humanitarian ethical principles and needed only technical knowledge from the sciences to make those values effective.” (232)

One of the curiosities in this book is the role of the university. Jewett begins with the assertion that “this book traces the origin of the campaign to turn the science-centered university into a tool for building a new culture. It explores where and how this project unfolded.” (1) Yet the university as an institution falls out of view for large portions of the book. After an account of how nascent scientific democracy shaped early research universities in Chapter 1, serious attention to the university does not return until Chapter 7. Indeed, the second half of the book, from Chapter 7 onward, is stronger than the first.

Despite the uneven focus on the university, one of the book’s greatest strengths is that it treats university curricula as serious objects of study for intellectual history. Although much of the material Jewett presents is known to specialists on the history of universities, he provides new readings of some of it—particularly with regard to the role of science—and successfully places it in a broader national story that helps to show the importance of curriculum for American political culture. In fact, Jewett uses two major episodes in the history of general education curricula to bolster his narrative about the triumph and fall of scientific democracy. The first episode is “the establishment of survey and orientation courses associated with programs of general education” (197) in the immediate aftermath of World War I. The most prominent such effort was Columbia’s famous Contemporary Civilization course, which influenced subsequent programs at Rutgers, Stanford, Utah, and other universities. Jewett shows how “the dominant impulse toward general education in the 1920s and 1930s actually came from scientific democrats who sought to make the ethical lessons of the modern human sciences available to students in readily digestible form,” (201-202), rather than from notions of Western Civilization. The paradigmatic textbook for this period was The Making of the Modern Mind by John Herman Randall Jr., a disciple of Dewey.

Jewett believes that the political crises of the 1930s prompted a reversal, in which courses on Western Civilization became cornerstones of general education curricula by the 1940s while social scientific content waned. He specifically claims that a response to fascism motivated this shift, and adduces as evidence that the leading postwar Western Civ textbooks appeared between 1938 and 1941. The Western Civ framework aimed to ground liberal democracy in an enduring tradition; it described human action in the West “as one long attempt to realize a set of core values inherited from ancient sources” (329). It thus marginalized social science, which “appeared only at the end of the story if at all.” (328)

Jewett extends this argument through an analysis of the famous Harvard report, General Education in a Free Society, usually known as the Redbook, which “set the tone for the postwar conversation on general education” (330). According to Jewett, the Redbook “divided the intellectual world into two distinct spheres” (332). The humanities would provide ethical guidance from the Western tradition, while science, particularly by its applications in medicine and technology, would provide means to those ends. In the Redbook’s words, science “implemented the humanism which classicism and Christianity have proclaimed.” (quoted on 333) In this “two cultures” framework, social science fell by the wayside.

While Jewett’s achievement in placing the political purpose of general education in a broader historical framework is salutary, it is not clear that he is correct that the post-1945 period witnessed the dominance of a “two cultures” framework and the denigration of the social sciences. He places much of the blame for these trends on elite physical scientists such as Harvard president James Conant (a driving force behind the Redbook) because of the way they redefined science beginning in the late 1930s. As part of this movement, Conant and Robert Oppenheimer “simply erased the social sciences from their portraits of modern thought” (231). But other examples, both among elite physical scientists and in important discussions on general education, suggest that after World War II the social sciences and perhaps even scientific democracy maintained a higher profile than Jewett allows. Leading physicist Gaylord Harnwell, who directed an important university-based Navy lab during World War II and served as president of the University of Pennsylvania from 1953 to 1970, portrayed the advancement of social science as a hallmark of the postwar university and even occasionally quoted Dewey to support this position. On general education, the Redbook was one of a flurry of prominent pronouncements in the 1940s. Not far behind the Redbook in influence was a report with a decidedly different message. Higher Education for American Democracy, written by the President’s Commission on Higher Education appointed by Harry S Truman, bore a heavy Deweyan stamp. It lacked the Redbook’s references to fixed beliefs and eternal values, and it assigned social science a central role. Some of its descriptions of social science were intensely technocratic, but in many ways—such as organizing knowledge around human problems rather than academic disciplines for presentation to undergraduates—its recommendations resembled the curricula of the 1920s and 1930s that Jewett describes as infused by scientific democracy. Moreover, it argued for a Deweyan conception of democracy to unify all university activities.[1]

Even if Jewett does not establish his central claims to everyone’s satisfaction, Science, Democracy, and the American University is both an important and a useful book. The latter is especially the case because of its footnotes, a scholar’s delight too rare these days, for which Cambridge University Press deserves high praise.

Ethan Schrum is a postdoctoral fellow in the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He has published essays on universities and twentieth-century U.S. intellectual history in Social Science History, History of Education Quarterly, and Perspectives on the History of Higher Education.

[1] Ethan Schrum, “Establishing a Democratic Religion: Metaphysics and Democracy in the Debates Over the President’s Commission on Higher Education,” History of Education Quarterly 47.3 (August 2007): 277-301.